Willow Springs Creative Centre is a social enterprise that promotes individual and community development through opportunities for creative expression. The organization offers inclusive, accessible, and custom-designed art, therapeutic gardening and food programming delivered by professional artists, gardeners and facilitators. Programs range from an Adult Inclusive Art program for adults with disabilities, to a gardening program for seniors, a summer farmers’ market and a soup and bread Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Willow Springs follows an assets-based approach to community development. That is, they strive to recognize and build on the talents and skills of local individuals in order to enhance and their lives and thereby strengthen the community.
Willow Springs Creative Centre is based in the community of Lappe, in Northern Ontario, approximately 20 minutes Northwest of Thunder Bay. Lappe is a rural community with a population of approximately 1,500. In addition to employing and serving Lappe residents, Willow Springs works in several other communities in the Thunder Bay district, including Thunder Bay. The rural agricultural communities in this region are small but close-knit, and take pride in their Finnish roots. The Willow Springs team contributes to preserving and strengthening the area’s history, culture, and community through creative, nature-based activities. Willow Springs works with individuals and groups in the area who would otherwise not have access to these types of activities: youth at risk, individuals with disabilities, people who face barriers to employment, the elderly, and women.
In 2000, four local artisans who had been interested in expanding their art sales and instruction decided to rent a historical farmers’ cooperative. Known as the ‘Koski store’, the facility had been an important gathering place and social hub for families in the Lappe area. The artisans set up a gift store and studio, but soon realized that their work involved more than teaching art classes. In making new artistic, creative, and nature-based activities available to their community, they were contributing to personal discovery, healing, spiritual exploration, and in turn, community development. With this in mind, they created the Willow Springs Creative Centre.
They named it Willow Springs as a tribute to their Finnish heritage (sisu; meaning flexibility, growth, and tenacity, and also characteristics of the willow tree), and to the natural landscape of the region, which served as both their inspiration and art medium. Ten local women agreed to join a working board, and a community of artists, volunteers, and program participants began to grow. In June 2006, the organization was incorporated as a non-profit. In the years that followed, funding from a variety of places allowed them to develop the facilities. In particular, a new accessible garden was established to offer horticultural therapy programs and various food-related activities in addition to arts programs.
Willow Springs is led by long-time Coordinator Judi Vinni, lead artist Lea Hayes, and an external board of up to 12 directors, who provide guidance on governance, business planning and development, partnership and resource development, and program monitoring and evaluation. An administrative assistant, a food service manager, an art program lead, and a gardener have also joined Willow Springs since its incorporation in 2006. While each individual has some specific responsibilities, they typically share various roles, ranging from program coordination, to resource development, to janitorial duties. Hired artists, trained horticultural therapists, and life skills coaches deliver programming. In addition, each program can call on the support of 40 to 50 volunteers including students and interns devoted to social work, recreation therapy and outdoor recreation. Programs are delivered either on-site at Willow Springs, or at various locations throughout the Thunder Bay area, in partnership with community organizations.
Willow Springs’ work is devoted to three primary areas: art, gardening and food. Within these areas, the Centre offers programming for the general public (e.g. art workshops and classes), training and life skills development (e.g. for youth at risk, and people facing barriers to employment), and products and services (e.g. the farmers’ market or gift shop). While initially established with an arts focus, the gardening, food and training components of the Centre developed organically, as a result of the interests and experiences of the staff and Board. All of these activities share a common focus on and celebration of the abundance of nature, and the importance of ecological stewardship.
In 2014, Willow Springs Creative Centre operated on an annual budget of approximately $160,000. This includes several small and large-scale grants, and revenue generated through operations. The Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) and the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) were the largest sources of funding. In 2008, Willow Springs secured a two-year OTF grant to develop an accessible garden and a horticultural therapy program. This two-year grant was followed by another three year grant in 2011, and the renewed funds were targeted for organizational development and social purpose business planning. These funds are on a tapered funding scheme; Willow Springs must thus work towards increasing revenue in order to sustain their social purpose, business plans and staff positions. In 2011, Willow Springs also received a two-year OAC operating grant. These funds were particularly important to cover the overhead costs of Willow Springs’ facilities.
Currently, Willow Springs’ largest revenue-generating activities are its farmers’ market, and its food service initiatives (e.g. the soup and bread CSA These programs were piloted in 2013 and have already seen positive results in 2014. The soup and bread CSA, for example, has grown from one CSA session/year with 27 customers to two CSA sessions/year with 40 to 50 customers. It began with 3 cooks/bakers making all the soup and bread, and has expanded to 13 people including a food services trainer/manager, 3 support workers, 4 volunteers and 5 young adults with disabilities training in food service. Its operations covered most of the Food Service Manager’s salary for the winter period of 2014.
Much of Willow Springs’ off-site programming, including a horticultural therapy program for seniors, and youth, adult, and alternative education art programs, is supported in partnership with other community organizations. Partners include: the March of Dimes Canada (MOD), Dawson Court Home for the Aged, Lakehead Psychiatric Hospital (LPH), Sister Margaret Smith Centre, Community Living Thunder Bay, Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Lakehead University, Confederation College, and Gorham and Ware Community School. Willow Springs also receives support from other arts and gardening/environmental organizations in and around Thunder Bay. Organizations such as the Baggage Building Arts Centre, CAHEP, EcoSuperior, Roots to Harvest, Food Security Research Network, Horticultural Society and the Master Gardeners work with Willow Springs to support and complement each others’ work.
Impacts & Outcomes Objectives
Willow Springs’ principal impact lies in how people are transformed by a connection with art, nature, and creative processes. Willow Springs’ programs are not limited to teaching skills; they give community members opportunities to express themselves, feel motivated and empowered, and embrace creativity. The organization also has a role in changing how people view themselves and each other. For example, youth who participate in programming typically become more engaged in the community and are able to develop better relationships with adults and peers. Individuals with disabilities become involved in a range of activities, and form new and lasting relationships within the community. Willow Springs’ activities have what staff calls a “mushroom effect”. These programs don’t affect only those who participate, but also their friends and families, and the artists, teachers, gardeners, therapeutic gardeners, volunteers, and community members who interact with them. Those who lead the activities have the reward of seeing how people change and helping to effect that change. At the same time, they have the opportunity to use their unique skills, abilities, and interests in creating positive social change.
In addition, the organization helps to develop rural-urban connections and relationships. The farmers’ market, for example, provides an opportunity for cottage-goers from Thunder Bay to mingle with rural families, artists and artisans from the region. The market is fast becoming a community hub that brings people together in a common appreciation of nature’s bounty.
Funding and staffing continue to be significant challenges for this organization, but long-term sustainability is now a top priority. Current priorities includes:
- Acquiring more stable funding and increasing revenue generation to sustain staff positions.
- Defining and capturing Willow Springs’ work, in order to access “niche funding”
- Developing communication and marketing strategies
- Ensuring that objectives and business plans reflect new ideas, programs, training, services, and effectively capture the wide scope of Willow Spring’s impact.
- Getting a lease-to-purchase agreement for the facilities in the coming years.
- Developing a funding database and a more systematic method of applying for funding on an ongoing basis.
One of the keys to Willow Springs’ success has been to be as inclusive and accessible as possible; not only with respect to participants, but also in the types of programs and services offered. Some important lessons learned along the way are:
- Consensus and collaboration are essential to good decision-making processes and community-driven growth.
- It is important to balance intuition and focus when considering opportunities for growth and development; the long-term sustainability of the organization depends on keeping focused on the main social goals of the organization.
- Some revenue generation is necessary; the work that social enterprises do is valuable
- Change is good. A dynamic board, for example, can help an organization improve its profile and grow its network.
The Willow Springs model reflects the wide range of people, skills, interests, and objectives that are part of it. Despite the challenge of integrating all of these components, the impact and success of this model extends far beyond that of a traditional arts centre. It is in fact the commitment to an inclusive, accessible, and comprehensive model that has allowed Willow Springs to build upon the strengths, skills, and assets of individuals, groups, neighbourhoods, and towns, and use those assets to strengthen the broader community. Willow Springs’ programs teach skills, but they also transform individuals, and the community. One of the keys to this social enterprise’s continued success and growth will be to find ways of effectively communicating the broad scope and social value of its work.